Going abroad as an American student is certainly a lesson in humility. Not everyone is as big of a fan of the good old U.S. of A. as we might like to think. And while I have not directly encountered any blatant anti-Americanism, it seems that our reputation precedes us.
During our first days here, the IFSA students stayed at a hotel before moving into the dorms. We would encounter people from countries all over the world in the elevators, and almost immediately after the doors would close, they would turn to us and say “Are you Americans?” Sometimes without even hearing us speak. Is it our clothes? Our look? Do we emit a subconscious American obnoxiousness — like a cultural dog whistle that only other nationalities can hear? I probably couldn’t have told you where they were from just by looking. And I couldn’t have asked them in their native tongue whether they were German or Swedish or Norwegian, like they had just asked us in English.
I think the general European consensus about Americans is that we are overbearing, dismissive of other cultures, ignorant of world events and that we see things as being either our way or the highway. My flatmate even told me that she thought the show “Jerry Springer” was meant to be an accurate depiction of American life. And when I mentioned that Americans pretty much know that the French dislike us, another flatmate regretfully informed me that, “Most everyone dislikes Americans.”
My immediate thought in response to this was, “But where I’m from, everyone loves Americans!” Now, how American of a thought process is that?
The stereotypes of Texans are even more grandiose (although I’m sure we wouldn’t have it any other way!). Today, a guy asked me what state I was from. When I told him Texas, he said, “Oh God! Aren’t you allowed to shoot people in Texas?” And then he asked me if we were all inbred. Our gun control and self-defense laws are extremely horrifying to the British, most of whom have never even seen a gun before. Pepper spray is considered a firearm here, and you can serve a pretty hefty jail sentence just for possession.
Another huge adjustment is the differences between the collegiate systems. British students are on a different path than American students in their first year of college. For example, they don’t shop around the course catalogue, trying on different classes to see what fits best. At university in the U.K., if you are going to study dentistry, you only take courses in dentistry. They find our little-bit-of-everything attitude towards coursework strange. Some U.K. students I’ve talked to even see it as almost non-committal and watered down.
They believe an educational foundation should be established in college (high school), and your focus is narrowed at the university (collegiate) level. Courses have a much stronger emphasis on self-teaching and individual learning; they assume that if you are a student, then you should have the motivation to come to class, complete readings and do research without being rewarded with completion grades, participation points or benchmark quizzes.
So far, the greatest lesson I’ve learned abroad is that in leaving behind your home, family and friends (and inevitably a large part of who you are), you discover so much about yourself and the place you are from. When you are taken out of your context, you are forced to define yourself in clearer terms. Your surroundings can no longer speak for you. Your friends cannot be used to reflect upon your character. You must be able to articulate distinctly about who you are as an individual when all of the extra falls away.
Living in London, I am learning more about what it really means to be an American, on a personal and global scale. A lesson that is both challenging and enlightening!